May 5, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

Xiong Chengyu, a personal advisor to Chinese President Hu Jintao on internet policy, came to New York briefly and on Tuesday we met at Columbia law school.

It was a casual meeting and we chatted for quite a while. Anyone affiliated with the Chinese government is usually quite formal, so I wore a suit for the occasion, and worried about my lack of a welcoming committee. But Xiong was of the new breed, and preempting me, he wore jeans with a jacket, like a 60-year old internet hipster. In conversation it turned out he was something of an internet utopian himself. He spoke of a network of great transformative power for China’s economy, culture, and society. A network that would take China out of its present cage, its underdeveloped version of itself. That would create applications to match and compete with U.S. versions, and even interestingly, a content industry that can best Hollywood.

But then why so many controls, I asked him? He said, “to provide room,” and to “make development possible.” I didn’t quite understand what he meant by that. He urged me to pay less attention to the present, to the controls of today, and to think about China’s future. I asked, but then what’s the long term goal — something like Singapore, more like Europe, or the United States? He said, no, probably something in the middle, something Chinese, but in the end better.

After a while, something struck me. Like many of the dreamers in our book he was so deeply convinced of the internet’s potential to liberate China from its lack of development that he was willing to overlook details nearer the present. He was buoyed by the same kind of optimism in internet progress that you see in the West, just directed to a different goal: bringing China back where it should be. That, for him, made hard questions easy. I admired his spirit but it also made me a little nervous.

On his way out he wanted to buy some of the “new” books on law or media or the internet at the bookstore that can be harder to find in China. I took him there and he bought my book (shameless, yes). He also bought Lessig’s 3 books, and Paul Starr’s “the Creation of the Media.” Neither Glenn Reynold’s nor Yochai Benkler’s new books were in the bookstore (Labyrinth Books, near Columbia).

I wondered if I should warn him that our China chapter is quite critical, but I didn’t, and off he went.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    I think I understand what he’s saying. It’s just very hard for American ears to hear.

    In America, and in the West, we are very, very thoroughly conditioned to think BUSINESS == FREEDOM.

    They don’t think that way in China, or at least, are trying to do something different (sometimes phrased as “authoritarian capitalism”).

    I suspect he’s saying he wants the commercial benefits of networking for business development, which will be enormous, but not the social networking aspects, which he(?) regards as threatening (maybe not personally, but he sees others do).

    ‘But then why so many controls, I asked him? He said, “to provide room,” and to “make development possible.” I didn’t quite understand what he meant by that”

    I conjecture he means “We want to keep down the social networking so the skeptics in the goverment let us use it for business networking, instead of forbidding the Internet entirely as a bad thing in general”.

    This social/business quandary is what Lessig, you, others, discuss. So it’s really similar, he’s just approaching it from the opposite end as all of you.

  • Seth (but not Seth Finkelstein)

    If one wants to take an optimistic outlook, economic development can lay the groundwork for a more democratic culture by making money available for education, and by creating an alternative base of economic power external to the government. So one might hope that the PRC will follow the route taken by S. Korea, Taiwan, Japan, etc. in a few decades.

    I just feel sorry for the individual Chinese citizens caught up by the political suppression in the interim.

    -Seth (but not Seth Finkelstein)

  • http://www.qxiu.com kid blog

    “make development possible” is very important for chinese internet!
    if we let more freedom in the internet,may be there are to many sex site in china!

  • Joe

    This is just a VERY OLD idea which is accepted by CCP. The old guy just means there should be rules for internet, at least in china. Economic Goodies should be enlarged as much as possible, but DON’T touch anything realted to politics & criminals.

  • http://www.transformertoys.co.uk Transformers @ The Moon

    Judging by the last post you’re going to need to change your ‘spam-bot’ prevention. Nothing worse than them clogging up articles :-(

  • chinese citizen

    I am always wondering, who or which department in my country is deciding which page I can visit and when, if possible, why. With a clear list and a clear rule, it would make me less angry, I think.

    The funniest thing is, most blocked content is those, after reading them, I would think foreign media write biased news over china with limited knowledge of our country, mostly with laughable conclusions. Then why blocked? Because I am treated as one with no ability to judge individually? At least I feel I am humiliated by the big brother in some ways.

    I don’t need a pure world. Give me the dirty environment, so I can immune.

    But I have to point out: the process to fight for own rights still shall be left to our chinese people. Don’t think for us, act for us, just like our government, which will only make the natives angry.

    Well, at least, I can visit here, LOL!

  • http://www.coolingame.com carina

    i thingk that is quite differest between china and U.S. ppl in china often see others strongpoint and dot realize the potential or phsical blemish.powerleveling.so they think that a network would take China out of its present cage is quite formal ,they envy western countrys and wanner to learn to develop fast.

  • http://www.factoryfast.com.au/affiliate_affiliate.php Affiliate

    Some good comments, to a very interesting post, that goes beyond just looking at the internet but also starts looking at the differences in worldview here that effect the way that each country develops. Contrary to what others think, the Western world also has a certain way of thinking (worldview) that is LIMITING proper development. He probably meant those kind of things, but just (obviously) was not at liberty to discuss them (or had the time.)
    I think that they feel that by controlling the internet, they are able to ensure development DOES take place and that nothing hinders their goals. This kind of thinking can lead to some evils, but also some good, depending on who is in control. Obviously, he wants to use the internet for straight business more than entertainment.
    Think about America for a second – have you noticed that entertainers / the entertainment industry makes the most money? Of course you have. Yet these people make the LEAST DIFFERENCE in the country. Those that make a difference (such as teachers etc.) are the least paid. This is a very unfortunate situation, which will lead to many problems in the future (guaranteed.) And, consequently, can lead to lesser freedoms (people are less educated, development does not go forward as a result etc.)
    This is probably one of those things that he spotted, and China would like to avoid (and for good reason.)

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